The internet has facilitated our access to information, flattened cultural differences and allowed digital companies to obtain easy access to a global market. The internet changed our approach to new markets, and it of course helps us get closer to our users and understand them as we never did before. But this is precisely what we should cherish, explore, and leverage. We might be operating in a global market, but our users lie in highly local cultures and realities. We need to dig deeper and understand how those cultures work rather than trying to impose a global culture. Even though digital companies have never been so connected to our global users, we run a huge risk of remaining separated from them.
A SaaS company should be globally-minded from its earliest days. This requires starting out with a global vision. Here are four steps that a SaaS company must take in order to obtain sustainable global expansion.
1. Choose a global-friendly name
Being a global company starts very early on. The product names you choose will define your company identity. Select names that will help, not hinder your global expansion. Never Eat Alone is a French startup that first pitched its idea to big corporation in 2015 and is already expanding in the US. Even though France is famous for its cuisine, it’s doubtful that the French version of the company name, Déjeune avec moi, would have been so easily accepted by the American market.
On the other hand, Blablacar, the world’s biggest ridesharing platform, was first launched as covoiturage.fr, but when they decided to go global, they had to change their name to become number one in Europe and eventually worldwide. This undertaking implied changing logos and design, but most importantly, the actual URL for their website. The names of your company and your product are its main branding assets, so pick them thinking ten steps ahead.
2. Localize your product
Speaking, understanding and writing a language is one of primary signs of familiarity with a culture. Language represents and expresses the entire culture as it evolves with its people. Having your product available in English doesn’t mean that all English-speaking users will relate the same way to your product. It’s very important for a SaaS company to create a singular voice that represents both its brand and the target audience.
Using a humorous and informal voice in English if you are selling a B2B product might make sense in the US, as it may help engage with your target audience, but it will not be accepted as easily in the UK, for instance. Using too many local puns, or local cultural references may make it harder for foreign users to understand your voice.
When writing product and website copy for a SaaS company, start thinking globally from the very beginning. Remember that the people reading your words will most likely come from a bit further than just the corner up the street. After all, North America may have 359 million internet users, but this puts it in 5th place compared to the other major regions of the world. Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa all have more.
To reach most of these people online, you won’t be able to get by with English only. Even if you just look at Europe, which is traditionally considered an English-friendly region, you realize that very few people are actually able to even hold a conversation in English.
As a consequence, translating your product interface is simply a necessity in order to reach a broader audience. Offering localized versions of your product will help you engage with a bigger audience, facilitate word of mouth marketing, and garner more interest from local media in your brand. But for it to succeed, you have to make sure that the translation represents your brand message and speaks to your local audience.
3. Think market-first, not language-first
Simply translating your product doesn’t mean you entered a market. When Trello was first launched in new languages, we created a test to see if translating the product into a language would have an impact in and of itself. We chose to translate into three major world languages: German, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. We decided not to conduct any marketing efforts in Spanish. For the German market, we did some internal PR outreach. For Brazil, we had a bigger launch in Brazil, where we were covered by more than 120 publications, created a local blog, developed a local social media presence, and so on.
The results of our test were impressive. We doubled the signups in Brazil, had a small bump in sign-ups in Germany, and saw zero changes in the signups curve in Spain. The conclusion? Translating your product simply isn’t enough to gain a local market presence, even if it helps remove an important barrier. A language is very different from a market. When you decide to invest globally, give consideration to which markets you hope to enter. Let that help you determine which languages to localize into, but remember that isn’t the be-all, end-all.
4. Establish a local presence
SaaS companies encompass a large span of business models, and not all of them will require a local physical presence. When you start thinking about your company’s global expansion, think about whether you will need a local presence, and if so, for which functions. Most of the time, you’ll be looking at an equation that includes local sales, marketing, and support. Other functions can often be based elsewhere.
If your selling model requires face-to-face, in-person meetings, a local physical presence will most certainly be essential. All cultures have very different ways of buying, and the sales cycle varies from one country to another. If you want to effectively sell in certain regions, then having a local presence is a necessity.
For example, in Brazil, France or any Latin American country, business relationships rely more on the relationship than on the business itself. French people might prefer to meet at breakfast to talk through the details of a contract, or close deals at lunch over a glass of wine. Brazilian customers may sincerely inquire about your family and where you come from, hug you at the first business meeting, and prioritize phone calls over emails. A typical 30-minute conference call done by an American salesperson simply won’t be as effective in Latin American countries as it is in the US.
Local presence can be important in other departments beyond just sales. Your marketing team needs to build partnerships with local influencers. Your support team may need to have people that can help your users in the right time zone and cultural context. All of these pieces add strong value to the collective local user experience. Fortunately, today’s digital tools make having a local presence much more flexible and easy than in the past. Working remotely and hiring local contractors is easier than ever, making any company’s global expansion more agile and feasible.
As these four key steps make clear, whether or not to go global shouldn’t be a question for a SaaS company, but rather part of your company’s mindset from the very beginning. The SaaS business model allows you to easily reach users from all over the world.
But as you expand internationally, make the effort to understand your global users’ singularities, rather than just their similarities.